The great English test scandal or another miscarriage of justice?

February 23, 2024 by Alison Tunley

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In 2014, the BBC’s Panorama programme reported on what was described as widespread cheating in English language tests that formed part of the international student visa approval process by the UK Home Office. This complex legal immigration story has been back in the news recently as new evidence has been put forward by people who say that they have been falsely accused of fraud in the tests.

The Guardian has a useful explainer on the backdrop to the case, which involved roughly 35,000 students having their visas revoked, 2,500 being deported and a further 7,200 leaving the UK after being told they faced arrest or detention. Most of the others were unable to complete their courses, resulting in the loss of many thousands of pounds paid in student fees.

There is no question that some cheating did occur. The original Panorama programme obtained undercover footage of an East London test centre providing candidates with “a paid cheat or proxy, who spoke good English”. Evidence was presented in court of financial bribes paid by some students to people working at test centres, and several people served prison sentences for facilitating fraudulent test submissions.

However, campaigners have always claimed that the alleged scale of the problem involves numbers that are simply implausible. A review by the company who administered the tests identified a deception rate of 58% in the spoken part of the test, with a further 39% of tests identified as ‘questionable’. In other words, 97% of spoken tests were flagged as suspicious. As the BBC reported in 2022, “If that had been accurate, it would have represented the largest exam cheating scandal in British history.” Labour MP Stephen Timms has described unfounded allegations of fraud as “a grave injustice” and criticised the Conservative government for failing to act when doubts about the evidence of cheating emerged.

The problems with the evidence of cheating are interesting from a linguistic perspective because the company used voice recognition technology (with some additional reviews by human listeners) to analyse the spoken test data and flag potential cases of fraud. The Home Office appears to have taken this evidence at face value – anyone whose test was flagged as ‘invalid’ (58% of all tests) could expect to have their visa cancelled. But the government’s confidence in the evidence of cheating has not always withstood closer scrutiny. Several thousand people have won immigration appeals, and in 2019 immigration barrister Paul Turner was reported as saying “the courts are finding that an awful lot of people did not cheat”.

A 2019 report by the National Audit Office found that the Home Office lacked the “expertise to validate the results” and failed to get an “expert opinion on the quality of the voice recognition evidence”. In some cases, candidates may have taken the spoken test in person only to have their legitimate test recording subsequently replaced by a different recording, without any awareness of this deception taking place.

The government insist it is vital to “allow these legal processes to run their course”. However, the recent spotlight on miscarriages of justice in the Post Office scandal means there is mounting pressure on the Home Office to expedite a resolution for those whose visa status is still under dispute.


Image: Unsplash

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